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A Little Watchdog for a Big Job

L.A. Ethics Commission, far behind in its work, needs more staffers

December 01, 1996

The recent announcement of a resolution in the ethics case of Stan Sanders, a former candidate for mayor and later City Council, was anticlimactic at best. Even those Angelenos who avidly follow city politics might have needed a moment to recall just what the case was all about and why Sanders was hit with the largest fine ($31,000) ever levied against a city candidate here.

An audit by the Los Angeles Ethics Commission, back in 1993, found that Sanders' mayoral campaign had misused $53,490 in campaign funds to pay nine months of rent for his law office. Sanders has always maintained that nothing improper was done.

The question is: Why did it take so long to reach an agreement on a fine? The answer, in part, rests with the ridiculously small staff of the Ethics Commission. The city of New York, for example, has a separate staff of 41 whose sole responsibility is to determine whether campaign funds are being used properly. The entire staff of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission is composed of 16 people, including just two full-time investigators.

Many Angelenos fall back on the notion that this city has little corruption and wrongdoing and that the old eastern cities have huge ethics agencies precisely because they are so corrupt. That is an overly trusting attitude.

The commission here has a huge task, not only tracking campaign finance and lobbyist spending but conducting its own investigations and audits. Is it keeping up with the workload? An answer can be found in the fact that it is just now starting its audit of the 1995 local elections. This situation effectively prevents the commission and its executive director, Rebecca Avila, from launching the kind of preemptive examinations that could expose money laundering and campaign finance abuse as it begins rather than after it has taken hold.

The city's voters have repeatedly shown that they want a strong and independent Ethics Commission. That was certainly the case last month when they voted for steps that would allow the commission to pick its own president.

Clearly more staff members are needed. Budget decisions are up to the City Council members--who would be subject, under the law, to investigation by the commission if allegations ever were filed against one of their campaigns. The commission presently is seeking funding for just one more staffer. In these times of tight budgets, getting even that will be difficult, but it should be done.

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